Despite centuries of research conducted around the world into early human culture, many mysteries remain engraved in ancient South American rock art. Dozens of questions continue to go unanswered for archeologists. Luckily for them, they still have so much more to discover right at their fingertips.
From a cave full of handprints in Argentine Patagonia, to a 13-kilometre-long Amazonian rock wall with countless depictions of possible now-extinct species, these ancient art phenomena could reveal even more about a time we still know little of. As well, these rock paintings may further our insight as to when and how our ancestors interacted with some of the many beasts of their time.
Serranía de la Lindosa
Stretching almost 13 kilometres through the Colombian Amazon, Serranía de la Lindosa contains tens of thousands of painted images dating back millennia. Placed along the banks of the Guayabero River, it has become more colloquially known as the “Sistine Chapel of the ancients.”
The pristine artwork features handprints and depictions of prehistoric mammals like mastodons, horses, and giant ground sloths. The paintings contain such fine details that one can even distinguish individual hairs on the tails of horses. Believed to represent the first arrival of humans to South America, the images would have developed over the course of hundreds or thousands of years.
Serranía de la Lindosa, located in Chiribiquete National Park, remained a secret after its initial discovery in 2019. Its real claim to fame came with the 2020 release of the Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon documentary.
The discoverers attributed the artwork to paleolithic hunters who entered the Americas via the Bering Land Bridge thousands of years ago. Archeology professor José Iriarte, who led the Colombian-British team that made the discovery, described the phenomenon:
“When you’re there, your emotions flow … We’re talking about several tens of thousands of paintings. It’s going to take generations to record them … Every turn you do, it’s a new wall of paintings.”
Reaching New Heights
To document the paintings scaling higher up the rock face, archeologists required flying camera drones. This raises the question of how the original artists themselves reached such heights thousands of years earlier.
Besides images of mammals, the rock face also comprises depictions of birds, fish, reptiles, masked dancing figures, trees, and hallucinogenic plants. Iriarte found the addition of flora artwork unsurprising:
“For Amazonian people, non-humans like animals and plants have souls, and they communicate and engage with people in cooperative or hostile ways through the rituals and shamanic practices that we see depicted in the rock art.
“They encountered these large-bodied mammals and they likely painted them. And while we don’t have the last word, these paintings are very naturalistic and we’re able to see morphological features of the animals.”
Iriarte said the paintings also represent turtles, jaguars, monkeys, porcupines, and just about all other elements of Amazon biodiversity. Whether the art also represents extinct megafauna, however, remains contested. Based on those of the paintings originating from a more recent period, some archeologists have pointed to alternative modern-day species for such megafauna. A substitute for a possibly depicted giant ground sloth, for example, could be a capybara.
Man and Beast
But Iriarte remains confident this art serves as evidence of early human encounters with extinct beasts. Possible creatures include a massive-clawed giant ground sloth, an elephant-like gomphothere, a thick-necked horse, a hoofed or three-toed mammal with a trunk, and a camel, llama, or other camelid.
Already having fossilized proof of these creatures makes it easier to determine what they once looked like and then compare them to the paintings. Archeologist and explorer Ella Al-Shamahi, who presented the documentary on the site, noted how the natural environment would have changed over time:
“One of the most fascinating things was seeing ice age megafauna because that’s a marker of time. I don’t think people realise that the Amazon has shifted in the way it looks. It hasn’t always been this rainforest. When you look at a horse or mastodon in these paintings, of course they weren’t going to live in a forest. They’re too big. Not only are they giving clues about when they were painted by some of the earliest people – that in itself is just mind-boggling – but they are also giving clues about what this very spot might have looked like: more savannah-like.”
Nearby fragments of ochre, an earthly pigment, were traced back to around 12,600 years ago. Archeologists hope to eventually date the red pigment used for the rock art itself, but this presents greater challenges due to the inability to use radiocarbon dating in this case.
More research into the paintings has the potential to reveal why these creatures went extinct. The absence of relevant bones at the site suggests humans did not rely on them as food sources. Archeology and anthropology professor Paul Tacon, from Australia’s Griffith University, said interpreting the rock artwork will raise much debate but also provide insight into human culture during the relevant era:
“In this case there is a strong argument using multiple lines of evidence to support the contention that some surviving paintings in the Colombian Amazon are of extinct megafauna from the late Pleistocene or early Holocene. The next challenge is to scientifically date the paintings to support or refute this contention.
“At Serranìa de la Lindosa, the people who made the paintings were depicting things important to them that certainly would have been associated with stories, knowledge sharing and aspects of both domestic and spiritual life.”
In Peru, the Checta petroglyphs in the town of Canta represent one of the country’s most important rock art sites. According to unproven Peruvian legend, a mountain lake with large, elaborate temples was completely submerged by a landslide approximately 5,000 years ago. Today, these Checta petroglyphs remain the only surviving evidence of this ancient theoretical culture.
The glyphs cover approximately 8,000 square metres atop Querena Hill, located in the Peruvian district of Santa Rosa de Quives. This is where the Alcaparrosa Ravine and left bank of the Chillon River Valley intersect at an elevation of about 1,200 metres.
In the Quechua language, checta translates as “broken rock” or “cracked firewood.” A priest named Pedro Villar Córdova first discovered the glyphs in 1925, which include about 100 rocks with roughly 450 engravings. The images resemble humans, animals, plants, celestial bodies, and various abstract characters and mostly orient themselves toward the north.
It remains unclear how far back the glyphs date. But Villar Córdova suggested indigenous groups in the region may have created them as long ago as 1800 BCE. His dating of the rock art corresponds to the time of the extinct Chavín people. The culture had a part human, part feline deity that some of the glyphs appear to resemble. As well, Villar Córdova believed the engravings served ritual or territorial purposes for a competing tribe, perhaps most likely for asserting ownership of the land.
Cueva de las Manos
Cueva de las Manos (“cave of the hands”), located along the Río Pinturas in Argentina’s Santa Cruz province, contains stencilled hand paintings from between 9,500 and 13,000 years ago. The cave also features more elaborate and abstract artwork like geometric shapes, zigzag patterns, red dots, and images of the sun.
The site even includes indigenous depictions of humans, guanacos, rheas, and cat and plant species, all of which continue to exist today. As well, hunting scenes depict people and animals interacting in dynamic and natural ways. This has provided researchers with new insight as to what hunting and survival techniques humans used and how they behaved thousands of years ago.
Certain sections of the artwork at Cueva de las Manos were clearly added during earlier time periods than others were. In terms of colouring, pigments of red, purple, white, yellow, and black come from kaolin, natrojarosite, and iron and manganese oxides.
Archeologists believe the artwork may have corresponded to some form of initiation ceremony. Most of the prints come from the left hands of boys around the age of 13. The artwork may relate to ancestors of the indigenous hunter-gatherer communities of Patagonia, whom European settlers first encountered in the nineteenth century. More specifically, it may have been ancestors of the modern-day Tehuelche people who last inhabited the area around 700 CE.
Cueva de las Manos is widely considered one of South America’s most important early hunter-gatherer sites. The region’s uniquely favourable conditions have helped thoroughly preserve the artwork since as long ago as the early Holocene period. Low humidity, minimal water in the soil, and stable rock foundations are among reasons for the exposed paintings’ survival.
A National Treasure
More recently, acts of thievery, vandalism, and plain carelessness by visitors have taken a considerable toll on the precious site. The provincial government’s Law 1024, issued in 1975, prompted the preservation of the region’s historical, archeological, and paleontological heritage. And the city of Perito Moreno, roughly 65 kilometres south from Cueva de las Manos and one of the nearest communities to the cave, became the province’s archeological capital in 1981.
The Congress of the Argentine Nation declared Cueva de las Manos a National Historic Landmark in 1993. The provincial government promoted its Law 2472, for protecting regional cultural heritage, in 1997. And the country promoted its own Law 25743 in 2003 to better protect its archeological and paleontological heritage. In 2006, a site committee was also formed to administer Cueva de las Manos.
Permanently adopting the site into local custody, implementing visitor management strategies, and adding an interpretation centre count among actions that have been taken since a management plan for the cave was first proposed in 1997. Conservation and deterioration assessments, physical studies of the land, and preservation surveys of the rock art have also played vital roles in the site’s maintenance and protection.
Brazil’s Serra da Capivara National Park became a World Heritage Site in 1991 due to its rock art. Its most renowned archeological site, the rock shelter Pedra Furada, presents more than 1,100 images and thousands of artifacts.
Pedra Furada, which translates from Portuguese as “pierced rock,” contains drawings that depict the region’s fauna and early human life. It includes scenes of people hunting animals with traps and spears. Quartzite, flint, and chalcedony, among other minerals, would have composed a limited number of these basic hunting tools.
Geometrical designs, ceremonial events, and leisurely activities are also depicted at Pedra Furada. The pigments come from reddish ochre and clay of various colours, including yellow, white, grey, and black. Evidence shows that painters even used concave pieces of sandstone as mixing palettes.
An Early Arrival
Research by Brazilian archeologist Niède Guidon, 89, placed the work about 12,000 years into the past. Guidon first learned about the site in the 1970s and continues her work there now. She has also advocated the possibility of humans arriving to South America millennia before migration into North America:
“The excavations here have shown that mankind arrived here about 30,000 years ago. And they stayed because at the time this was a very favorable region, with plenty of water. But when we published the first results of our research, with the dates of the artifacts from the [Pedra Furada] site, some American scientists said it was impossible because man certainly had first come to the Americas 17,000 years ago.”
The “Northeast Tradition” that Guidon attributes the paintings to may have survived for more than 6,000 years. The artistic techniques of this culture likely evolved over time from basic fingerpainting to brushing with plant fibres and animal fur. Guidon also affirmed that the inhabitants of the region were already preparing pigments 29,000 years ago. Her research has also led her to believe the Americas may have received their first human inhabitants more than 45,000 years back.
The Solutrean Hypothesis
Experts like Guidon, while still accepting overwhelming evidence of the Bering Land Bridge theory, have also considered other ways humans first arrived to South America. The Solutrean hypothesis suggests European hunters from the southern border of modern-day France and Spain crossed the Atlantic Ocean during the last ice age.
Solutrean culture predated the Clovis people and particularly made a name for itself in the Americas with its double-faced projectile points. These were both similar to and unique from the Clovis points of the present-day southeastern U.S.
The large concentration of Clovis points around the eastern American coast further indicates possible early immigration across the Atlantic. While Clovis culture did not originate until after the Last Glacial Maximum, the Solutrean people would have arrived in the Americas anywhere between 23,000 and 36,000 years ago.
What Ancient South American Rock Art Can Teach Us
The discovery of the abundant rock art at Serranía de la Lindosa in just the last few years shows that so much remains for us to find, decode, and interpret. This reality does not only apply to our knowledge of megafauna and other species that went extinct long ago. Quite the contrary, it demonstrates how much we still have yet to learn about our own ancestors and how they interacted with the world, wildlife, and other people around them.
At the same time, we should remain weary of the damage our modern-day footprint has already inflicted upon precious archeological sites like Cueva de las Manos. And we should hold the decades of local, provincial, and national Argentine efforts to protect and maintain the cave as an exemplar of archeological preservation.
Sites like that of the Checta petroglyphs and Pedra Furada may go so far as to make us reconsider our understanding of when our ancestors first arrived to South America. But we must also always take into great consideration the fragility of the artwork we continue to uncover and analyze. In short, we have to proceed carefully, delicately, and thoughtfully. Unless, that is, another wall of magnificent ancient rock art still awaits us in the depths of the Amazon.